A leaked video of an Iowa shoplifting suspect being brutally beaten by a police officer in front of her child is making its rounds on the internet, stirring discussions on the standards for excessive force and the prevention of police brutality. But unfortunately those discussions are almost completely ineffective. Why? Because no one actually knows how common excessive force is because there are no state or national requirements that it be reported.
This lack of required reporting allows individual police departments to leave excessive force reports out of official records, and cripples both the research community and law enforcement agencies from making proactive changes to ensure such acts don't occur in the first place.
See the shocking video below:
"We realize we give [the police] great authority. They can really destroy someone's life with the power they have, because they are one of few departments that can use deadly force. We should keep track of that, and right now we don't," said Roger G. Dunham, chair of the sociology department and professor of sociology at the University of Miami, who has studied the excessive use of force by police extensively.
Dunham's research partner Geoffrey Alpert, a professor in the school of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina, said that there are few states that require even the reporting of deadly force, and that he is unaware of a single state that requires the reporting of excessive force.
In Iowa, for instance, reporting numbers to the state isn't even possible. Lt. Robert Hansen, a public information officer at the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said he "couldn't even begin" to offer numbers on excessive force, because there isn't even a category for it to be coded under in their crime statistics.
One of the greatest barriers to reporting that data, even on a state level, is that no one is really in agreement about what excessive force is.
The National Institute for Justice reports that incidents of excessive force are almost impossible to quantify because "Various definitions and measures of force prevent researchers from definitively identifying the frequency of events that may be defined as justified or excessive."
Ilana Rosenvweg, president of the board of directors at National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), offers an example:
"If I take you by the arm and lead you away and you are not resisting me, is that force? Is handcuffing force? Some agencies will define force as anything greater than an unresisted handcuffing, but in some agencies even handcuffing could be force," she said.
And while this makes reporting across municipalities difficult, Rosenvweg doesn't think it should prevent the data from being reported.
"I think you could potentially do national reporting without everyone having to define force the exact same way, as long as the reporting was divided into categories by type of force," she said.
Rosenvweg believes creating uniform standards across the country would be almost impossible because local municipalities govern the police. Getting thousands of police departments to come to an agreement about what defines excessive force would be near impossible.
Tim Lynch, the director of Cato's Project on Criminal Justice and head of Cato's National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, disagrees. He believes that while national standards wouldn't be feasible, state standards would be.
"We have 18,000 police departments across the country, and the rules vary between them. You would think there would be statewide protocols in place for policing so that statewide information could be compiled on a regular basis, but that's not going on," he said.
Research currently done on excessive use of force largely relies on information volunteered by police chiefs, and on the few official records that exist — many of which are doctored prior to their filing.
"There was a time when we first started [our research] that we just couldn't get information from anybody, unless it was a very progressive department," said Dunham. "But if you only use the progressive departments you aren't getting a true picture, you are just getting the ones without real problems."
Even with official records, Dunham and Alpert said there was always information on specific cases they simply were unable to get because police departments would remove them from the records or severely doctor the information so it reflects less poorly on the department.
"We've been clamoring at these police professional associations for decades to get uniform reporting on use of force, and we've been very limited in our pursuit in even reporting deadly force," Alpert said. While he noted that the International Association of the Chiefs of Police attempted to get such a record going in the 90s, the association failed at even getting their member organizations to report their numbers.
The impact of the lack of information is that researchers, like Dunham and Alpert, are unable to judge instances of police brutality against a baseline — because it is impossible to tell what the baseline is. Meaning that the case in Iowa may be a frequent occurrence, or it may be a complete anomaly.
"With the advent of these body cameras and YouTube and cell phones. We are starting to get many examples of excessive use of force, but really don't know what the base number is so we can't tell how bad the problem is," Alpert said.
Lynch and his team at the Cato Institute are now attempting to create such a baseline by scouring the media for reports of police misconduct and gathering them into a national database. While they admit this largely anecdotal process is not capturing everything and still needs refining, he believes long-term research will be useful.
"If we can consistently run them over a period of years then we will develop enough of a sample to identify trends as far as whether its getting worse or better, and identify polices that make good practice and bad practices," he said. "So when policymakers are ready to tackle the issue in their state or city, we can be a resource for them."
While Alpert said he will continue to push policing organizations for more reliable standards for reporting excessive force, he said he believes body cameras that record all actions taken by an officer in pursuit will be a necessary additional step to solving the problem.
"Now, not only is there a written report on what happened which could be spun and written creatively," he said. "But there is a video report of what happened. I think you need both."
Because of leaked footage, both a video and a report exist for the shocking Iowa case. But with all shocking news stories, perspective is always a necessary element to the story. Unfortunately, no perspective on the use of excessive force exists and it can't until research can be done. Perhaps its time to stop thinking about police brutality in the vacuum of the latest news story, and begin thinking about it as a nationwide problem that needs to be measured before it can be addressed.